Zelensky and the Politics of Entertainment

Let us return for a moment, if anyone can yet bear to do so, to 2016. Amidst the shock that rippled through much of the world following the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, somewhere there factored the horrific realisation that a reality TV star, the man behind a programme attractive principally for its predictable humiliation of ambitious young businesspeople, had wrenched what was supposedly the planet’s toughest job from perhaps the most qualified nominee for the presidency in living memory. The point is, however, that this lack of experience was itself a factor in the New York mogul’s appeal. And just a few short years later, another inexperienced television star has claimed the highest office in the land, this time in Ukraine, and his story may even be a tad more intriguing – or terrifying – depending on how you consider it.

Donald J. Trump’s political career began well before his fateful descent down that golden Manhattan elevator in June 2015. A regular donor to the Clintons, his righteous Christian evangelism a more recent phenomenon than he’d have you believe, Trump ran an ultimately abortive 2000 presidential campaign on the Reform Party ticket. When he entered, most commentators considered it a brash marketing exercise, which it almost certainly was. Similar theories were quick to evaporate around the time of the Republican presidential debates back in 2016. My point here is to illustrate that, whilst clearly an outsider in a certain way – he’d not previously held elected office and almost certainly plied a very different vocabulary from the other candidates – Trump was a regular face at exclusive party fundraisers (both Republican and Democrat) pre-2015. His embrace of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory concerning Barack Obama’s supposed birthplace in Kenya had kept him on the headlines in the world of America politics, if only for such a rancid attempt to delegitimize the country’s first African-American president due to the colour of his skin. Anyway, enough about Trump for the time being. I think the novelty of his presidency has well and truly worn off by now, and we’d be better served by considering the devastating impact his time in office has already had on the environment.

Just a few months back, relaxing on the sofa at the end of the day, I came across a Ukrainian-language comedy series on Netflix. Its name, Servant of the People. The show, now in its third season, focuses on the rise of an unknown history teacher to the presidency of his native country after a video of him railing against the corrupt establishment goes viral. Once elected, President Holoborodko (fictional name) assembles a team of political outsiders and novices, many of whom are his close friends and sets out with ambitious goals, including taking on Ukraine’s influential oligarchs and fixing up the rather horrific road network. Though Malta and Ukraine do not at first glance appear to bear a great deal of resemblance to one another -indeed their recent histories could scarcely be more dissimilar – I found myself sporting a wry smile as the fictional president desperately censures his own pensioner father for grabbing freebie flat screen TVs and washing machines from shell-shocked shop assistants, invoking privilege via association. A reminder that clientelism knows no geographical boundaries and that many rules are de facto held to be arbitrary.

A quick Google search after finishing the first episode revealed to me that which, for better or worse, was no longer the unthinkable: Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian starring in Servant of the People, had recently launched his presidential campaign to succeed the incumbent nationalist Petro Poroshenko in upcoming April elections. Fact and fiction had so violently collided, and yet I found myself smiling once more, out of glee rather than some morbid, twitching paralysis of disbelief. This likeable 41-year old – not a former economy minister and investment banker like Emmanuel Macron (of the same age), however – promised a truly insurgent and unorthodox campaign. Zelensky, star of the show (or, rather, shows) on TV station Kvartal95, was a world away from the stuffy – and almost certainly corrupt – political class of which the two frontrunners, chocolate magnate Poroshenko and former PM Yulia Tymoshenko formed a part. Poroshenko, who came to power following the 2014 Maidan Revolution, promised to forge a new, westwards-looking path for Ukraine; he is, however, widely seen as corrupt and as having accomplished little in the way of concrete reform. A viable contender, according to polls, even before he announced his run for the presidency, Zelensky conducted his campaign messaging almost exclusively on Instagram – arguably a first for the presidential category. It is only since his election that his team has established that supposed prerequisite for any aspiring politician, the Twitter account. That in itself tells you something about the demographics of his support base. The law graduate-turned-comedian was beamed into the homes of millions of Ukrainians on a regular basis in virtue of his presence on Kvartal95, the station owned by controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoisky (more on him later). That enabled him to cultivate a form of ‘personal’ relationship with huge numbers of potential voters; whilst watching Servant of the People myself, I regularly projected my hopes on Zelensky’s President Holoborodko. His was the role of the pure outsider descending into the rancid, creaking underworld. It was impossible not to want him to succeed in changing things – shaking them up in whatever way he could. On a more consequential, and certainly not identical level, I’m sure that’s what many Ukrainians felt like when it came to voting in April’s presidential elections. Zelensky’s inexperienced, untried and untested; maybe that’s just what we need. Besides, look at the rest of the field of candidates!

The comedian’s insurgent campaign was short on policy substance but could produce personality and vibrancy in abundance (and isn’t that so often what counts?), as his aforementioned Instagram page attests to. I don’t speak Ukrainian, so I only know half the story, but his posts depicting him working out at the gym and playing jokes on his colleagues make him out to be a genuinely relatable, warm guy. The same amicable fellow who becomes president in the TV series. This accessibility clearly contributed to his appeal during the campaign; though he’d voiced support for Ukraine’s armed forces in the ongoing conflict in the eastern Donbass region and spoken of his European aspirations for the country (both positions were hallmarks of Poroshenko’s tenure), Zelensky was – and to a certain degree, still remains – an unknown quantity. Whether you placed yourself on the right or the left, it was quite possible to feel that he’d be sympathetic to your views, on your side. At least to me – a casual, distant spectator – the fictitious TV president (and consequently, the real-life occupied that murky, elusive space that we call, perhaps all too often, the realm of common sense. This really isn’t rocket science; it’s just good screenwriting. Isn’t the protagonist in a good thriller almost always
someone, dare I say, slightly vacuous? Part of me does, however, wish to argue that the breadth of the new president’s mandate – having won 73% of the vote in the second round – may just grant him some leeway, provided that his team is up-to-scratch and that he secures a favourable arithmetic in the next parliament.

It’s worth considering the subject of cold, hard cash. Volodimyr Zelensky is himself a successful, wealthy man, one of Ukrainian entertainment’s best known figures prior to his run for the presidency. The story becomes more complex when one considers the company that gave him such a powerful platform, media corporation Kvartal95, owned by the aforementioned billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky. A long-time adversary of the now former president Petro Poroshenko, Kolomoisky fled Ukraine amidst accusations of embezzlement on an enormous scale. This, of course, raises questions, particularly given that Zelensky has since appointed the oligarch’s personal lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, as his chief of staff. Similarly influential posts have been granted to his former colleagues at the entertainment broadcaster. The situation, then, may appear to be little more than classic clientelism, a president elected with a significant mandate rewarding his friends with cushy jobs following the most improbable of landslide victories. Then again, a quick reference to the TV show that appears to be enjoying a remake on the national stage confirms that this is true to form for Zelensky. His fictitious President Holoborodko, repulsed by the shady career politicians the state bureaucracy thrusts his way, brings in his drinking buddies – often clueless but certainly not inherently corrupt – to fill an array of cabinet roles. It is here that unpredictability and the absence of the much-vilified experts draw the viewer in. People just like them are now at the helm – decent, ‘ordinary’ people – although the shadowy oligarchs who have pulled their strings for decades will not go so quietly, regularly attempting to rein in the rookie cabinet with offers of summer houses on the Black Sea coast or flashy new sports cars. This is a picture that dominates through the TV series, the establishment unable and unwilling to reconcile itself to the naive ‘mistake’ of the electorate. It’s a compelling and easily comprehensible storyline, one to which virtually anyone would prove sympathetic. After all, don’t many of us complain that our politicians are cold and distant, their shaking of hands and kissing of babies a carefully scripted exercise to drag their personas back down to earth?

In Servant of the People, the new President sets about attempting to reform the state with a sledgehammer, showing little aversion to the visible agitation of the caniving Prime Minister. Yes, he often comes up against seemingly brick walls, but then again, no one has ever thought of deep-rooted corruption as merely a cobweb that can be swept away in an instant. Once again, it is unpredictability that is President Holoborodko’s greatest weapon. Much the same appears to have been the case for Volodymyr Zelensky in real life. Though expressing a vague admiration for US President Ronald Reagan – think of his ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’ – his political party, sharing the same name as the TV show, has not yet presented many concrete policies on matters such as economic policy. Where does this leave us? I’d argue that the diagnosis posited in Servant of the People – that of a desperate population almost without any remaining optimism, held back by a rancid bureaucracy serving the interests of solely the wealth few – is a piercing yet unifying one. Many Ukrainian voters felt so desperate that uncertainty on a potentially epic scale, likely coupled with eventual disappointment – yet with a slight chance that something interesting would happen – was preferable to the status quo. Better the devil you don’t know to the devil you do all too well. Zelensky’s rise is not entirely unprecedented. Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger are just two prominent performers to win election to lucrative offices once thought reserved for those with years of political experience. What makes his case more interesting is that his own career as a comedian granted him a powerful brand – even aura – that stepped in convincingly to fill the void of concrete policy he put forward during his campaign. Voters could quite clearly picture him as president and allow him to embody whatever they wished. Such was the brilliance of the series’ scriptwriting. This effect was undoubtedly mixed in with several local considerations, such as the apparent failure of recent establishment figures to change any fundamentals of the system.

Will Zelensky fare any better? Only time will tell, and a lot depends on the team he assembles. However, to quote journalist Edward Lucas, when compared to the autocracy of Putinism, “[h]e has a stronger message: the potent cocktail of freedom, legality and dignity, and treating integration with the outside world as an opportunity, not a threat. By contrast, the Putin regime offers its people stagnation, paranoia and isolation.” Eastern Europe’s (arguably) first populist leader is therefore one to watch. Yes, avid fan of the TV series as I am, I’m optimistic. However, Zelensky’s rise – so suddenly, through such unconventional means, discarding virtually all political axioms – is yet another reminder that huge numbers of us pine to give the ‘establishment’ a prompt and firm kick in the rear, even if the solutions to those deep-rooted problems we agonise about have yet to materialise. In Britain, so the narrative goes, millions voted for Brexit in 2016 to jolt the elites, and then expected them to do their bidding. Now Nigel Farage, former commodities trader, declares that they’ve betrayed the populace and there’s no option but for him to step in. In Ukraine, millions voted to end stagnation and speed up the country’s reorientation towards the E.U. and NATO. All pretty confusing. But if one thing’s clear, I’d argue it’s that our political appetites are changing; we want our politicians to surprise us and shock us – perhaps in the hope that they’ll have the exact same effect on the establishment.

Written by: Jacob Grech

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